I have a range of interests with trains that encompass genres like art, storytelling, architecture, woodworking and design, and I draw upon the resources of each to find inspiration for my approach to modeling. It’s how I work and where I find the most satisfaction in the work. The cameo project I’m pursuing embraces many of the insights I’ve learned from these non-traditional sources, especially art and design.

My philosophy is to seek inspiration from the best examples I can find. One such source is natural history dioramas, which led me to the book: Windows On Nature- The Great Habitat Dioramas Of The American Museum Of Natural History by Stephen C. Quinn.

The book covers the background and history of how the dioramas came to be along with their purpose as educational tools. It’s a lavishly illustrated volume that covers more than forty of the displays, with insights into their construction and unique challenges. So how can museum dioramas with stuffed animals help us build model trains?

Context Matters
The diorama format that these displays evolved from was born at a time (the late 1800s through early 1900s) when the public became aware that wildlife and wilderness are not unlimited. The dioramas featured in this book were built in the first decades of the twentieth century and are a step forward from the simple taxidermy displays in glass cases that preceded them. As educational tools the context and setting of each of the habitat diorama matters. Each depicts an actual location at a specific time of day. Museum naturalists, artists and researchers traveled to each habitat and did extensive studies of the wildlife, the geology and plant species in order to accurately reconstruct the environment back in New York.

On site, they collected samples of plants, soils, rocks and anything that would be relevant to an accurate depiction. Museum artists took extensive photographs and painted studies noting the terrain, color and light conditions. These trips were arduous and spanned weeks, even months in an age before the convenience of modern travel as we know it.

For teaching tools, such rigor is expected. As hobbyists though, we gloss over the value of such efforts with the lame excuse that we’re only engaged in self-directed entertainment. For many of us that’s as far as our thinking will ever go, yet on some level we understand the importance of context for our models. If it’s as unimportant as some would suggest, then why do we bother with any form of scenery at all?

Small Spaces Can Feel Large
These dioramas are not small-scale miniatures. The taxidermy specimens are life size, yet the actual foreground spaces they occupy are fairly small in comparison to the expansive views they convey to visitors. The secret to the panoramic depth and feel is in the skilled hand painted backdrops and overall composition of the scenes.

Museum artist James Perry Wilson reinvented the art of background painting with his work on these dioramas. His skill and sense of color and space created landscapes of incredible depth. What isn’t apparent to the eye from the photos in the book, is that these background paintings are actually a curved, nearly 180 degree arc. To render a scene in perspective that mimics what the eye sees in nature, Wilson developed a grid system for laying out the composition that compensated for the distortion of the curved surface.

His location and field studies became the primary reference source for faithfully creating the diorama’s background. Wilson spared no effort in his quest for accuracy. To produce the impact of an expansive domed sky, he applied up to 31 bands of graduated colors, carefully blending them together to create a seamless transition from the deep blues at the apex to the warmer tones of the horizon. As the painted landscape comes forward the colors and details blend seamlessly into the 3D foreground. This is landscape modeling of another caliber, yet it offers us many lessons.

The Whole Is Greater Than The Parts
For example, I’m in awe of how integrated the foreground and backgrounds are in these works. The careful blending of color and detail eliminates the clumsy transitions that we see so often on layouts. Their impact has nothing to do with whether the backdrop is photo-realistic or impressionistic, painted or not. It comes from paying attention and from seeing the modeled scene as a whole, rather than a collection of parts.

We are conditioned to think of a layout as a bunch of pieces or a series of tasks to complete before the fun begins. With this mindset we leave the impact of the whole to chance. Our scenes might work together but most likely we have to modify things on the fly as reality intrudes.

What draw me to these dioramas are the same qualities that draw me to cameo layouts: the way all aspects of the design work together to create a believable slice of reality. Thinking in terms of how each element relates to and influences others, brings a cohesive feel. Everything fits and seems in its proper place. We sense an order and intention at work whether we can articulate that feeling or not.

We wouldn’t think of slapping a freight car together willy-nilly from a bunch of random parts (well, narrow gaugers excluded), yet we do just that with the context we place our models into. A blob of plaster is good enough for a rock; a hunk of cotton will do for a tree. Don’t sweat the color, just slather on some gray or green and call it done. Works like these show what’s possible if we can expand our imaginations to embrace the ideas they embody. Is it the right approach for everyone? No, of course not. For those who aspire to better modeling though, there’s no better example except nature itself, to study and learn from.